Producer Nikhil Melnechuk Discusses Slam Poetry Documentary DON’T BE NICE
Fresh, direct, and unflinching, the new feature documentary Don’t Be Nice delves into the intricacies of slam poetry, boldly revealing a world many have experienced peripherally but relatively few know well. This winner of seven film-festival awards follows a team of hopeful New York poets en route to the national competition in Atlanta amidst the heat and tension of the summer of 2016, emerging with increasing social relevance for our edification. Don’t Be Nice dropped on DVD last week — selling fast; awaiting restocking at some large outlets — and is available on major streaming platforms starting today.
A poet himself (and actor, and director), I’m speaking with Nikhil Melnechuk, presently donning his producer’s hat, about Don’t Be Nice. Sharing producing duties with Cora Atkinson on the film directed by Max Powers, Mr. Melnechuk indeed knows well the Bowery Slam Poetry Team, including established poets Ashley August, Sean “Mega” DesVignes, Timothy DuWhite, Joël François, and Noel Quiñones, led by their attentive coaches Jon Sands and Lauren Whitehead. As these leads and others explore culture, identity, race, and sexuality — and as we in 2020 seem to be slipping further into the Twilight Zone — I ask if the film is increasing in resonance.
“That’s totally what we’ve seen,” notes Nikhil, “but to some extent that’s what we were hoping for when we made it — not because we thought the world would necessarily grow into a darker and more dangerous place, but because we felt that the film would end up becoming a bit of a time capsule for a summer that might otherwise get lost in history to what was about to happen, which was the 2016 election. At the time we were thinking we had an opportunity to film poets who were directly responding to incredibly vital, relevant events for the country, and to themselves and community, and we wanted to capture that, and hope that one day people would really be able to go back and look at what happened that summer, with a critical and a passionate eye.
“The Black Lives Matter movement, which came to the fore the summer of 2016 — not that it started then, but it really came to national attention in a big way — I think there was a fear amongst the poetry community that that movement might not last beyond that summer, or that the messages of the movement, that the poets were trying to expound, might ultimately be forgotten by the country, moving on to new issues. We’ve seen that that hasn’t happened. With the killing of George Floyd, we’ve seen the Black Lives Matter movement come to the national fore in an even bigger way. Poets continue to respond, and the poetry that was written in 2016 remained relevant.
“Art plays a major role in bringing that to the fore, because it does it with humanity, and with passion and grace, not just politics.”
When I mention Don’t Be Nice’s repeated refrain of making the issues personal, Mr. Melnechuk elaborates: “There’s a tendency, when you’re talking about political issues, to look at it from a bird’s-eye view, to be general. But I don’t think action can take place in a general way. I think action takes place from a personal perspective. That’s one of the messages that Lauren Whitehead, one of the coaches of the team, really champions in the movie: If you’re going to change, you have to find how that issue is affecting you personally, and how you personally are going to address it, in your own character. That’s the first step — and I think it’s a major step — that we see the poets in the film take.”
While Jon Sands greets different challenges in moving from poet to coach, we reflect on Ms. Whitehead’s vital guidance. “She’s brilliant,” enthuses Nikhil, “uncompromising in the best way.” Not only will her poem — delivered instructively, but very personally — cause you to think of Tina Turner (and maybe Mark Knopfler) in a new way, but in a surprise performance, her opera-singing skills reminded the team to dream big. That latter bit’s not in this film, alas — if you can believe it, 300 hours (!) of footage were meticulously honed by editors David Lieberman and Nathan Punwar, over a year-long editing process including several test screenings, to form Don’t Be Nice’s tight yet extremely expressive 96 minutes — but Mr. Melnechuk enthuses over countless stories from this field, yet to be told. Slam wasn’t built in a day.
Be advised, this project gets intimate. I ask how the filmmakers, and the poets, decided how close was too close.
“We talked frankly about how one could build trust, and how we wanted the film to be intimate, but we also wanted them to have some say in what we filmed and what we didn’t. And how we ended up framing that was: ‘We’re gonna try to film as much as we possibly can of this summer — but any time you want us to stop filming, any time there’s something happening where you say, no I don’t want this on camera, tell us, and we’ll stop filming immediately.’
“We thought that that might happen a lot, but it actually only happened a handful of times, maybe only a couple times, during the course of the summer. I think the reason why it didn’t happen more is multifold: One is I think poets are — their profession is to take deeply intimate things and share them with the world. The poets are already used to doing that on a regular basis at slams; they’re used to revealing themselves to audiences. And so revealing themselves to the camera was something they were relatively comfortable with already. And the other thing is we had a very small crew. There was a camaraderie that developed over the course of the filming — it wasn’t so much of a fly-on-the-wall as the poets knew who was filming them, and knew if they needed to talk to them about anything, they could.”
What about giving the project escalating drama without being forced or artificial about it?
“We wanted to find a way to connect with people who might otherwise not want to connect with slam, or might never otherwise have cared about slam — or didn’t know what a poet was. We decided that the way we would do that was to take a framing narrative which is the concept of a sports documentary, or a sports film, and treat the slam team as a sports team, and make it an ensemble film about a group of poets coming together, just like you’d see a sports team coming together, being trained, going through all the difficulties of bonding and testing their limits with themselves and their coaches, and then going to a competition.”
He adds Lauren’s sage advice:
“She said to me, ‘The only thing I ask, Nikhil, is that you don’t make it a reality-TV show.’ And what I took that to mean was: Please find the story here, and don’t fabricate it.”
That approach undeniably worked — “Scores ain’t shit,” opines one poet, but check the movie’s Rotten Tomatoes score — nonetheless, in addition to some slam supreme, Don’t Be Nice features a terrific, highly stylized centerpiece, cut like a music video, of Ashley August, using an ornate subway as her stage, performing her poem I’ll let you discover (to your delight) for yourself.
“We wanted to definitely find a way that we could showcase her,” enthuses Mr. Melnechuk. “She was a Slam Master of the Bowery Slam meeting — she organized the weekly slam — so the community that formed around the poetry club was in a huge way due to her, and her efforts, and her magnanimity.” Giving audiences as many ways into the technical process as possible, they sought an additional way to make the poetry pop. “Ashley was down, so she just performed her poem 20, 30 times, in and around that subway station, with everyone staring at her: ‘What the hell are you doing?’ — but, you know, they loved it, and I think it’s some of the best material in the movie.”
That’s really saying something, as pretty much all of Don’t Be Nice (rejoinder: “Be Necessary”) pops. Check it out, and look forward to more:
“There’s lots of room for more stories about slam,” offers Mr. Melnechuk, “and I hope to tell more stories about slam in the future.
“There are so many stories, and so many experiences of what it’s like to be a poet, that are unknown to the general public — I think it’s really important because we live in such a reactive culture, where response to news, or response to world events, is something that happens in a tweet, or happens in a ‘like’ or ‘dislike’ button, or happens in a troll war or a cancel-culture move, and there’s something profound to me about watching how carefully the poets took very painful and personal feelings and experiences, and crafted them into a political message that came from a personal space, and was deeply considered.
“Like, you hear one of those slam poems in the film — or you hear the best slam poems — you can’t argue with its personal truth; you can argue with its political message, but it’s been so deeply considered that it carries a great weight culturally. I want more people to consider taking the time to find what they want to say, and say it.”
This interview has been edited for space and clarity.
Images courtesy of Radio Drama Network.